In this article Gonçalo Lopes, better known to many as music composer and arranger Shiryu, talks about the lasting impact that Xenoblade Chronicles on Wii has had on his gaming life.
Being a European PAL gamer in the early '90s was pretty cool. Yet being a well-informed European PAL gamer in the same period was a nightmare. Sadly I was one of the later breed, the brave ones who ventured out every month to get the latest issue of magazines like Super Play. As such I was painfully aware that there were no big black borders on Super Nintendo games in America and Japan - their games ran at 60hz instead of our PAL 50hz and, worst of it all, hundreds of games never arrived in Europe, let alone my small country of Portugal. Even more worrying, role-playing games that provided the best value for money where among the biggest titles missing from European stores.
Taking The First Steps
Among all this misfortune, at least magazines did give me the knowledge of what to look for at import stores. It might sound silly today, but I can't stress how important a friend's "Final Fantasy Mystic Quest" US import was as a foundation of my love for JRPGs. It was purposefully simple, a gateway into JRPGS, made to teach American players how to play turn-based RPGs. Beautiful music that still brings back awesome memories sealed the deal, I began paying attention to RPG news on magazines, and it eventually paid off! I was the only among my friends to pick up Secret of Mana the day It arrived at the local retailer, showcasing the genre to a lot of my friends. I also wisely advised my cousin, a Mega Drive owner (no way one could afford both systems at the time) to pick up Soleil and Phantasy Star IV, two amazing RPGs (one action, the other turn-based). With the advent of CD home consoles like the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation, the genre finally became a part of European game culture, with Nintendo's biggest loss - Final Fantasy VII being many western player's first ever JRPG, a genre that would sadly be largely absent from Nintendo's cartridge-based Nintendo 64.
Signs of Trouble
Sadly when Square and Enix became a single company, I began to notice the talented people who had brought such classics like Final Fantasy VI to life on 16-bit systems were leaving the company to start their own, smaller companies. Coincidence or not, for some reason Playstation 2 era JRPG's somehow felt hollow, generic, shallow, same old, same old. For example I lost the will to complete Final Fantasy X, something that had never happened before with such a genre of game; I had never left JRPGs halfway. They were no longer good value for my money; I found them often boring and anticlimactic. I believed the problem was surely with me, possibly still too stuck to the old ways. All the amazing graphical advances and I kept longing for the perfection of the simpler days of Chrono Trigger. The GameCube situation was somewhat better, despite the very small number of JRPGs out in the west. I did manage to rather enjoy the upgraded Skies of Arcadia Legends from SEGA, spent blissful weeks exploring the fantastic world of Namco's Tales of Symphonia and customizing decks of cards in Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and The Lost Ocean by Monolith Soft and tri-Crescendo. I eventually upgraded to the Wii and despite having dozens of games of different genres coming out monthly, I believed my JRPG days were over. They would never be able to get back to the epic tales of past generations and I, now a fully employed responsible person, would never be able to again sink in dozens of hours finishing a video game.
Bionis By Day
"Monado: Beginning of the World" showed up in a small, just over a minute trailer during E3 2009. I was somewhat fascinated by it. Unlike most Wii third party offerings the graphics were indeed just as good as past first party Nintendo GameCube games (this aspect was something I always hated during that hardware generation, most often than not every time I bought a Wii third party game I ended up with a port using PlayStation 2 graphics and a lack of proper optimization), it showcased enemies who were absolutely huge over vast landscapes, on such an epic scale that it was able to dwarf the biggest open area of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I was a bit put off because combat seemed to be lifted from MMORPGs, something that had become a sort-of rule that is still going strong today: make all RPG's look, feel and play a bit like World of Warcraft. I had spent some time playing those types of RPG, in fact all the way back to Ultima Online. I quickly realized those are not for me. Like a good book, I like my RPGs to have a beginning, middle and an end. I'm also a rather busy person, so the ability to shut down a game and go back to it at a time of my choosing is essential. I own my video games, I do not want my video games owning me, which is often the case with online affairs.
But back to the mysterious "Monado": Who was making the game? That would be Monolith Soft. That deepened my interest due to fond memories of the fantastic world of Baten Kaitos back on GameCube. Who was the director of the game? Tetsuya Takahashi! Now there is a name I did recall from as far back as Super Nintendo! So "Monado" was part of the Xeno series? XenoGears remains one of the best US imports I got on my PlayStation. By the time Nintendo announced the rebranded Xenoblade Chronicles would come out mid-August 2011 in Europe, I was already counting the days to the release, with its fancy red box and red Classic Controller (yep, no fancy motion controls here, Nintendo wanted to make sure everyone knew the proper way to play this game).
Mechonis By Night
The first time I booted the game I was greeted with the titular Monado sword resting on the ground, with a night and day cycle looping while the beautiful main theme by Yoko Shimomura (of Street Fighter II fame, among many others) played along. Right there and then I knew I was about to begin something special. I could not however have any true grasp of what an amazing adventure I was about to embark upon. Even today it is very hard to explain to people who never played it why Xenoblade Chronicles is so special in this day and age, a game that transcends its supposed technological limitations of the Wii when compared to its rival machines PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, which could never offer me anything that remotely resembles this game.
That is not land you're standing on. You are on Bionis' right calf. Wait, what? Who or what is a "Bionis"? A white, giant organic titan god. In battle he was fatally wounded while also delivering a fatal blow to Mechonis, a dark mechanical god. The world of Xenoblade Chronicles exists in both the outer and inner body of these two majestic titans, forever stuck in the stance of their demise. Talk about an epic opening. The first hours of the game are a crash course into the game's world and controls, with the relative safety of Colony 9 shielding you and companions from the larger, epic world just beyond. Even just taking a few steps off the path will "reward" you with the knowledge that engaging enemies which are too many levels above your current level is a really bad strategy. Yet Monolith has them sitting right next to you at the start, as if they want the player to risk it. I often wonder if they made this on purpose or it was just accidental game design.
In good JRPG fashion or any great adventure in literature disaster will soon strike home, and your party will be forced out into the vast, perilous world. When you reach Gaur Plains and gaze upon the distant horizon, you know you won't be finishing this game any time soon. The music is also part of the magic. While the mammoth enemies that roam the land certainly do no harm in transmitting the epic scale of this world, part of the sense of grandeur comes straight from the soundtrack. See something in the distance? Walk in that direction far enough and you will be there. And always looming somewhere even further away, impossible not to spot day or night in the distant horizon stands the colossal Mechonis, an incredibly menacing presence, always reminding the player that eventually they will have to go there. The game manages to present such an epic scale that it is almost uncanny this is running on the humble Wii hardware.
War of Two Truths
CAUTION: In this section I will be giving out a few plot spoilers, so please skip this whole paragraph if you never played the game.
The narrative clearly induces the player to believe they are a part of the Bionis faction since we are, after all, humans. As such, everyone living on the body of Bionis is "our side". Often the "other side" conducts raids on our colonies which seem to have no purpose other than to eradicate living organisms. Right off the bat the game teaches you to fear the Mechon, bizarre mechanic creatures, soldiers of Mechonis that come in all shapes and sizes who fearlessly roam Bionis attacking all living creatures. The "bad guys"! Surprisingly early in the game the plot pulls a Aeris / Alys (for Final Fantasy VII / Phantasy Star IV fans respectively) on the unsuspecting player, giving us further reason to hate the Mechon, to seek retribution and to seek all out revenge on everything Mechonis.
After a few dozen hours poured into the game the player will reach the place where the game's introductory prologue played out: Galahad Fortress in Sword Valley, named so because it sits on top of the sword Mechonis used to deliver the fatal blow to Bionis. It was in this place I truly felt overwhelmed at just how massive and numerous the Mechon truly were, as the gigantic clockwork horrors roamed every possible pathway forcing the player into confrontation in order to advance. After the hardest trek in the game thus far, a truly unexpected turn of events, the player finds themselves alone, having to gather everyone from the party in Mechonis field, by all intents and purposes hostile territory. This was when the game truly tricked me and I fell flat face first on the floor. While I was already preparing for a fight, induced by what the game had taught me thus far, I was introduced to the Machina, the true people of Mechonis. Instead of a fight, they offered help and a safe place to stand on Mechonis, the Hidden Machina Village. It was there that they tell us the Mechons are nothing by mindless drones, war machines they created long ago but have since been running rampant beyond their control; in fact they too are victims of their own creations as are the inhabitants of Bionis.
I then felt ashamed. It is part of human nature to fear the unknown, to harbour prejudice against those who are different, to be misled by our own small vision and knowledge of the world. It is incredibly rare for me to be tricked by a video game like this, if ever before. I just have to go ahead and say it: The game played me like a dammed fiddle! Here I was fighting every day with the notion of achieving revenge and ultimate victory for the "good guys", filled with such righteousness when, much like in the real world, the line that divides good and bad in a war is shown to be unclear. The truth, as they say, is the first casualty of any war. And this was but one of several plot twists still coming ahead…
CAUTION OVER: Spoilers end here.
Building Worlds Worth Exploring
Monolith Soft had previously already proven that it was capable of creating fantastic worlds, and populate them with enough interesting characters that act according to well delivered scripts, with both "Baten Kaitos" games on the GameCube. They also move the plot at a fantastic pace, without any points where the player feels that they need to spend ages grinding to level up so they can tackle that one boss that stands in the way of further plot development. They managed to raise the bar so unbelievably high with Xenoblade Chronicles that it not only remains my favourite Wii game ever (yes, even above Nintendo's fantastic The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword) it simply stacks up as one of my favourite games that I've played in the past three decades I have been a gamer. However, I somehow fear the brand new - to Western audiences - Xenoblade Chronicles X might fail to be as engaging as its predecessor. I went to the first game with no expectations and this was one of the reasons I caught so off guard by its brilliance. I am going into this new one with unbelievably high hopes. After all, there is a whole new world to explore, filled with all new dangers and rewards at an even bigger scale… and giant robots! How can it possibly fail, right?
This time you're not even given a character to play out, you make your own, something that was changed mid-development in order to better immerse the player in the perilous adventures on Mira. My original and still only saved game data on the Wii clocked at a somewhat impressive 96 hours and 45 minutes. You can be sure I strayed a lot off the beaten path and the game kept rewarding me for it. Due to Monster Games somehow managing to cram all of this greatness into a tiny New 3DS game cartridge, we all can now do so anywhere thanks to the power of Nintendo's portable gaming system.
Brave New World
Anticipating another huge portion of my life gladly taken from me, I have cleared my whole schedule for December to properly enjoy this new entry (with some time out for Star Wars Episode VII too, of course). However, from my close circle of friends and despite some having played and agreeing that it is a breathtaking adventure, I was one of the very few who actually completed the first game. And since I can't tell them why it is such an amazing experience without spoiling them, it's a pickle to explain to them and other people why Xenoblade Chronicles X is enough reason to own a Wii U this holiday season. I hope this article will help get a few more people to pay attention to these two games… onwards then, the wonders of planet Mira await and the Skells don't pay for themselves. Will I be seeing you there? I hope so!